German reunification virtually pushed arms control aside as the central issue of the Soviet-American summit at its outset Thursday because Moscow fears a united and powerful Germany as a greater, more immediate threat than all the missiles in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Even more than an agreement on nuclear arms, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev needs to reach an understanding with President Bush on the military status of a unified Germany, an issue that fundamentally affects Moscow's strategic posture: its relationship with the West, Gorbachev's ability to pursue future arms agreements, the balance of power in Europe and the Soviet Union's opening to the world.
Gorbachev, speaking candidly with Bush in their first one-on-one meeting Thursday, made clear that, in Moscow's perception, Soviet security would be diminished, not increased, by the prospective arms agreements if they are not accompanied by understandings on the future military status of Germany, according to well informed Soviet sources.
While the threat of a nuclear war with the United States has receded, these officials explained, the reunification of Germany and the effective dissolution of the Warsaw Pact would leave the Soviet Union strategically vulnerable if a united Germany becomes a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"What do we gain by cutting our nuclear arsenals 35% or even 50% if we open our heartland to attack?" a Gorbachev adviser asked. "We have fought no war with the United States, but we have fought two in this century with Germany, losing more than 26 or 27 million people in the last war alone."
For Gorbachev, the issue is one of acute political sensitivity. He must show critics at home that his foreign policy enhances Soviet security instead of reducing it. He must prove that he is not the "man of concessions," as the Soviet right-wing now portrays him, but a leader who has been able to replace Moscow's hard-won military security with more effective political security.
And Soviet officials made it plain that U.S. willingness to respond to these Soviet concerns will be taken as a test of the new relationship that both Moscow and Washington hope will emerge from this summit.
"Can we resolve things on a balance of interests, by taking into account the needs of the other party?" another member of Gorbachev's delegation asked. "Or will we continually seek advantage over the other? This is an important exercise in developing a new relationship, and we are hopeful from President Bush's response."
Before leaving Moscow, Gorbachev had declared that unless the West takes into account Soviet security needs on German unification, the confrontation between East and West would continue in Europe--that Soviet troops would remain in what is now East Germany, that Moscow might pull out of the whole range of European security talks, that the Kremlin would re-examine its entire foreign policy.
Although the Soviet president acknowledged that the future of Germany will not be decided in his discussions with Bush, the two leaders made it their first priority Thursday and they assigned their foreign ministers to follow up their discussions and explore ways in which Germany's military status might be resolved.
"It is not good if we have a Germany that is not confident in its own security," Georgy A. Arbatov, director of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute in Moscow and a Gorbachev adviser, commented. "But it is equally bad if the Soviet Union is not sure of its security. It is in our common interests to find a solution that everyone feels safe."
The United States, supported by its NATO allies, maintains that Germany must be "anchored" in NATO and be a full member of its unified command structure.
The Soviet Union, after initially proposing that a unified Germany be neutral and putting forward several other ideas for discussion, now says that it is looking for new concepts from the West--and that, until there is agreement, it will not sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II, restoring full German sovereignty and withdrawing its troops from East Germany.
Although neither side changed its position in the discussions Thursday, Soviet officials said that "flexibility and openness developed" and both presidents were committed to exploring the other side's ideas.
Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser, expressed new U.S. understanding for the Soviet position, saying in an interview on CBS before the talks started that "a unified Germany inside NATO is a sort of humiliation" for Moscow.
"It is important that we be cognizant of their sensitivity on the point," Scowcroft said. "After all, NATO was an organization that, for the Russians, was designed to attack the Soviet Union. So, I think we do have to be sensitive to the imagery and psychology of what it is we are proposing."
How far U.S. and Soviet negotiators can get is uncertain. Both sides acknowledge that the issues are complex and involve the interests of many other countries, first of all those of East and West Germany but also the other members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
"We do not expect to settle the German question here--that is, first of all, a matter for the Germans themselves to work out--but we hope, even expect to emerge with an understanding with the Americans on the German position in Europe and on the shape of European security in the future," a Soviet official commented after the first round of talks.
"Remember Europe is our home, and everyone wants to feel secure at home. Without such security, we cannot proceed on the broader, strategic arms control issues."
The Soviet fear is not of an immediate military threat from Germany but of a shift in the balance of power in Europe, Soviet officials explained. Moscow found security in the postwar division of Europe over the last four decades. Now, with the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, it is anxious to develop a new security system based on political understandings rather than opposing military alliances.
Historically, Moscow has opposed the domination of Europe by any single power. It has gone to war several times to prevent this. The re-emergence of a united Germany, politically and economically powerful, in the center of Europe has revived fears of a German threat and none of the West's reassurances that this is a "different and democratic Germany" have calmed those fears.
"Every family lost someone in World War II, and no one can forget that this war, like World War I, came from German soil," Arbatov commented. "Certainly, nations can change, but our people need more than words to reassure them. . . .
"Until now, we had the Warsaw Pact on our side, and we had the German Democratic Republic as a very close ally, but the changes of the past year have changed all that. This is something that people feel deeply."
Gorbachev, speaking as Bush welcomed him at the White House, made the same point by noting not only that the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in defeating Nazi Germany but that he had met recently with Soviet veterans who urged him to safeguard the victory.
"For Gorbachev, this is an area where he can make a serious mistake through unilateral concessions," Andrei Kortunov, a Soviet foreign policy specialist said. "He must be seen enhancing our security, not diminishing it. That makes some sort of understanding on Germany a top priority.
"How is a difficult question, but an understanding is essential for this summit to succeed," Kortunov said.